It seems to me that our eighth President is several notches below the first seven. While Ted Widmer’s volume satisfies me that I have a handle on the man, reading this biography did not change my mind. This volume is part of The American Presidents Series edited by Arthur Schlesinger.
Van Buren followed the wildly popular Andrew Jackson and probably never had a chance. He ascended the presidency by deft political moves instead of passionate principles. He was incredibly unfortunate as well. The Panic of 1837 happened so soon in his presidency that it could not legitimately be laid at his feet. In any event, he was caught up in a vortex from the beginning and never recovered. It doomed him to a one-term presidency too. His political moves after his presidency really failed.
You won’t get far into the volume before you clearly see Widmer’s personal politics. The best biographers don’t usually let that happen. As a Democrat, Widmer really likes Van Buren because he feels like Van Buren shaped the Democratic Party into what it became. Perhaps there is some truth to that. Widmer also came across as one made cynical in the trenches of politics, yet he clearly admired Van Buren.
This volume tells us nothing of his religious views other than he sometimes went to church. Widmer seemed obsessed with Van Buren’s penchant to socialize and hit the party circuit. I see no evidence in this volume of him being a Christian, but Widmer came across as one who would downplay it in any case.
Despite my criticisms of this volume, I still recommend it. It’s the right length for me on Van Buren. Widmer can turn a phrase even if he offers more commentary than a first-class biography usually does. Breezy rather than scholarly, this book will likely satisfy those reading through presidential biographies.
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